When the Reds acquired a baseball legend for $100...and then simply gave him away
Christy Mathewson should have been a Cincinnati Reds legend.
In late May of the year 1900, Cincinnati Reds groundskeeper Matty Schwab smelled smoke. Schwab lived near League Park, the first of three ballparks at the Findlay and Western location where Crosley Field ultimately stood until 1970, and he discovered Cincinnati’s stadium was ablaze at 3:30 a.m on May 28.
According to the indispensable Redleg Journal:
Hundreds flocked to the site and sat in the bleachers to watch the facility go up in flames. For a time, it was feared that the fire would spread to the nearby row houses on Findlay Street, but the homes were saved from the blaze. The clubhouse was also destroyed, along with the uniforms, shoes, gloves, and bats of the players.
The Reds were forced to play ten extra road games because of the fire, and the club never recovered. After a string of five consecutive winning campaigns (and 11 of their last 13), the Reds stumbled their way to a 62-77 record in 1900. And yet, it was an off-season transaction that would ultimately be remembered as the biggest disaster of that calendar year…and would become the worst trade in franchise history.
Christy Mathewson was 20 years old in 1900, a three-sport star at Bucknell University and the president of his class to boot. While enrolled at the school, Mathewson also pitched for the Norfolk (Va.) team in the old Virginia-North Carolina minor league. He was a bit of a sensation, and in July, the New York Giants — one of the worst teams in the National League over the previous decade — purchased the 6’1” right-hander from Norfolk for the tidy sum of $1500, the equivalent of nearly $50,000 today.
Mathewson appeared in just six games for the Giants, compiling an 0-3 record and a 5.08 ERA (the average ERA in the league that season was 3.69). The Giants were not impressed. They promptly returned the young hurler to Norfolk and demanded their money back. Mathewson would finish the 1900 season with a 21-2 record in the minor leagues, but his big league future appeared to be uncertain.
In December of that year, the Reds selected Mathewson from the Norfolk roster for $100 in an early version of the Rule 5 draft. According to later reports in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Reds player-manager Bob Allen never even gave Mathewson a try out before deciding that he wouldn’t be in the Reds’ plans for the upcoming season.
Meanwhile, big changes were afoot around the baseball world. Ban Johnson, the president of the Western League, a minor league circuit with clubs in Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Kansas City (among others), believed he could challenge the National League for baseball supremacy. The league disbanded and then reorganized under the name “American League.” In late 1900, clubs in the league began trying to poach players from NL teams by offering larger contracts.
In what must have been an unwelcome surprise to Reds ownership and management, a bidding war broke out among AL teams for the services of Mathewson. While offers piled up for the young pitcher, the Reds quickly decided that it made little financial sense to attempt to hang on to Mathewson. After all, in order to retain his services, Cincinnati owner John Brush would have to outbid the American League clubs. Brush wasn’t willing to do that for a pitcher who wasn’t even in their plans anyway.
On December 14, 1900 — 121 years ago this week — the Reds traded Mathewson back to the Giants in exchange for Amos Rusie. Rusie was just 29 years old at the time of the trade, and had been one of the best pitchers in the NL since debuting as an 18 year old for Indianapolis in 1889. Rusie had been so good, in fact, that his ultimate destination would be baseball’s Hall of Fame; he was elected by the Veteran’s Committee in 1977.
So what’s the big deal? The Reds traded a promising young pitcher (though they seemed not to realize quite how promising Mathewson was) for a 29 year-old future Hall of Famer. On its surface, it sounds eminently reasonable, right?
Well, consider the fact that Rusie had missed two consecutive seasons with an ailment described simply as a “sore arm.” That’s right, he hadn’t even pitched since 1898! Rusie did return to a big league mound on May 8, when he surrendered 19 hits and 14 runs in his Reds debut, a 14-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. His arm still sore, Rusie didn’t pitch again for nearly another month. After a nice outing vs. Brooklyn on June 5, Rusie gave up 10 runs on 15 hits in five innings against his former club, the Giants. He never again pitched in the big leagues.
Mathewson, meanwhile, won 20 games with a 2.41 ERA for the Giants that season and thus began what would ultimately become one of the best careers in the history of the sport. Over 17 seasons, leaning on a dazzling fastball and his famous “fadeaway” pitch (an early version of the screwball), Mathewson would win 373 games alongside a 2.13 ERA.*
*Mathewson would ultimately return to the Reds in a 1916 trade with the Giants, after which he was named player-manager for Cincinnati. He appeared in just one game, the final appearance of his career, picking up a complete game victory (while giving up 8 runs). Coming to Cincinnati in that trade along with Mathewson were outfielder Edd Roush and infielder Bill McKechnie. They would both later be inducted into the Hall of Fame as well.
What to make of this trade? Modern day Cincinnati sports fans will no doubt see signs of our modern day malaise: cheap ownership getting rid of productive players rather than paying them what they are worth. It was a salary dump, pure and simple, more than a century ago! Bob Castellini and John Brush almost seem like kindred spirits. Do we know whether Castellini has a framed photo of Brush in his Great American Ball Park office?
There has been some suggestion, however, that Brush may have been motivated by other concerns. According to a particularly imaginative observer, writing about Brush: “Chicanery is the ozone which keeps his old frame from snapping, and dark-lantern methods the food which vitalizes his bodily tissues.”
The chicanery rumored to be at play revolved around the fact that Brush ultimately purchased the Giants a couple of years later. Accusations swirled that Brush engineered the deal in order to make certain that “Matty” would perform on baseball’s biggest stage in New York City and thus, ultimately, fatten the wallet of their owner. Indeed, Mathewson’s brilliance led the Giants to three World Series appearances during Brush’s span as owner of the club. Meanwhile, the Reds would sink to last place the following season, and never again competed for a NL pennant until 1919.
To be sure, there is little actual evidence to support this theory, and Brush’s specific motivations are lost to history. Whatever the reason for the trade, however, there is no doubt that the Reds had a future Hall of Famer and baseball royalty on their roster…and they just gave him away, essentially for free.
The Riverfront: A Cincinnati Reds Show
This week’s episode: TR #401: The Cincinnati Reds all-time single-season team. Which Cincinnati Reds player had the best single season of all time at each individual position? Which player from recent years had the best single season? Bill Lack and Nate Dotson joined me to discuss that topic, along with everything else Reds fans need to know right now.
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